An unusual 1980 concert on campus popped up in the news in January when Rolling Stone magazine spotlighted an archival recording recently added to the music site Bandcamp. Haverford College 1980 Solo Piano, as the recording is titled, features free-jazz pioneer Sun Ra, without the members of his Arkestra, playing a set that, according to Rolling Stone, gives the sense that you’re listening to “one of the 20th century’s greatest musical minds play stream-of-consciousness cocktail piano.
So how did musical legend Sun Ra come to play a solo concert in Roberts Hall on a Fender Rhodes electric piano borrowed, as it happens, from a Haverford student? According to Bill Lupoletti ’82, the concert was part of the first weekend of events organized by the Alternative Concert Series, a Bi-College organization he cofounded that made its debut in 1980. (Among his cofounders: Gerard Lewis ’82, Jim Findlay ’80, Saul Glass ’80, and Christopher Gibbs ’80.)
The inaugural concert, held on Friday, Jan. 24, was to feature solo performances in Roberts by saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins. Vibraphonist Walt Dickerson and Sun Ra (who had recorded an album of duets, titled Visions, in 1978) were slated for Saturday night, Jan. 25. But two weeks before he was scheduled to play, Sun Ra canceled, and Dickerson replaced him with bassist Jymie Merritt.
“We were bummed, of course, but, as we would learn over and over, shit happens in the concert business,” says Lupoletti. “The upside was that we didn’t need a piano for the gig, so we didn’t have to pay a piano tuner and movers, saving us money that we could apply to our next event.”
Then, the morning of the show, the organizers got another round of bad news: Merritt’s father had died, and he had to cancel, leaving Dickerson to do a solo show—or so they thought.
That night, recalls Lupoletti: “I was backstage with Walt, waiting for the crowd in Roberts to get bigger, when one of my colleagues rushed in and breathlessly announced that Sun Ra was at the entrance door. We later learned that the Sun Ra Arkestra had gotten a gig for the same night which paid more than ours, and that’s why he canceled on us. Then he heard about Jymie Merritt’s dad and felt bad for Jymie and Walt, so he came out to Haverford.”
Then he asked to see the piano. “I had to tell him that since we weren’t expecting him, there was no piano,” says Lupoletti. “But maybe we could find something for him to play, if that was OK with him. So, the word went out to the Bi-College community: ‘Who has a portable keyboard instrument we could borrow?’ Tim James ’82, a very good piano player who lived right next door in Barclay Hall, volunteered the use of his Fender Rhodes electric piano. It was no substitute for the Bosendorfer concert grand (recently donated by a Haverford alum) that we would have had ready, but it was better than nothing!”
A whole lot better than nothing, it turned out. Rolling Stone honored one track from the recorded concert in particular, selecting it for its “Songs You Need to Know” list. That track is a wild medley of Sun Ra’s signature “Space Is the Place” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a musical mash-up the magazine declared “an eerie commingling of song and pure sound that sums up just what a radical and forward-thinking artist the keyboardist was.”
Do you have a burning memory of a particularly unforgettable concert from your student days at Haverford? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us all about it.
Photo by Andrew Putler/Redferns.